Ann Braude Reflects on a 'Feminist Pilgrim's Progress'

Ann Braude has been Senior Lecturer on the History of Christianity and director of the Women's Studies in Religion Program (WSRP) since 1998. HDS staff writer Wendy McDowell sat down with Braude recently to talk about her newest book (Transforming the Faiths of Our Fathers: Women Who Changed American Religion) and the scholars and lives that inspired it.

This volume that you edited, Transforming the Faiths of Our Fathers: Women Who Changed American Religion, came out of the Religion and the Feminist Movement conference you organized and that was held here at HDS in 2003. Was it in the plan all along to publish something from the conference?

The conference itself had double origins. One was my own historical questions about how religion has fallen out of the narrative of modern feminism, which is the subject of my ongoing research. The conference was really born out of my questions as a historian when I saw that there were no primary sources, that household names like Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Rosemary Radford Ruether, hadn't committed to writing the stories of how they personally became involved in this historic juncture of religion and the women's movement. I wanted to create the primary sources for the writing of history, for my own project but also for the generations to come. I wanted to make sure that these stories were accessible and available. That meant that we videotaped the conference and we put it all up on the WSRP website, but also that there had to be a book to come out of it as another form of documentation. Also, the stories themselves were so compelling. Because they are first-person narratives, they draw people in, in a way that other kinds of writing do not.

You said in your foreword that a lot of these women had never actually been asked to tell their personal life stories before. How can this be?

It is amazing. I mean, these people have really interesting lives. I wonder if it's related to the field of theology. Theology is a field that privileges depersonalized concepts and that is based on abstract thought, whereas history is a field that is based on concretes and an enormous amount of specificity, that is, locating subjects in particular times and places. I wonder if some of these figures, who are best known for their theological work, have themselves focused more on abstraction. In a way, I felt like a fish out of water at the conference because I was asking people who are used to thinking very abstractly to think in historical terms. And they did a great job. They really opened their lives and hearts in ways that they had never done before in writing.

I was going to ask you a bit more about this issue of religion being left out of accounts of the history of feminism. Why do you think that is? What are you doing to counter this?

When I speak to religious audiences, they are absolutely shocked when I tell them that religion has dropped out of the narrative of modern feminism. They wonder, "What are the historians of feminism writing about if not these enormous changes in religion?" Well, for the most part, they are writing about political, cultural, and economic change. Most of the historians of feminism focus on the origins of the women's liberation movement and of what you might call "mainstream feminism," focusing on the campaigns for the Equal Rights Amendment and reproductive freedom. That leaves out a lot. But even within those two narrow foci, the roles of religious women have completely fallen out.

Is this because of who historians are?

There are several issues here. One is that many feminist leaders and historians view religion as the enemy. They view it as the source of sex discrimination and they see sex discrimination as deeply embedded in religious texts and institutions, not entirely without justification. They just want to walk away from religion. What religious feminists believe, and what I believe, is that walking away from these problems in the deepest sources of our culture does not solve anything. You cannot pretend that the Bible and other religious texts do not continue to be influential. They are at the very core of our society. And so if you walk away from these sources instead of addressing them and dealing with them, you really haven't accomplished anything.

There's also an issue that many religious conservatives have vilified feminism as an enemy of authentic faith adding flames to the fire. This is ignited most graphically in the so-called "culture wars" of the 1980s, but it continues to be an issue, and it continues to be an issue for many religious women. In fact, one of the questions that I've confronted in this project is a fear that people have of the word "feminism" itself. It's not a problematic term at Harvard Divinity School—it hasn't been for decades—but it has become increasingly problematic in many venues. While I myself would have no qualm about identifying myself with the word, I don't feel that the word is a litmus test for those with whom I can make common cause. Certainly, there are sectors of many religious communities where women's concerns are forcefully advanced but where the word feminism is not welcome.

It's a complicated issue. The word functions very differently outside of the academy. As a historian, I have to consider the impact of the word beyond its theoretical and academic application.

As you know, there have been well-funded campaigns by religious conservatives against feminist church leaders. For you, as a historian, how do you deal with that and try to get these stories told?

What I felt I could contribute as a historian is to dispel the notion that religion and women's rights have been antagonistic throughout American history. It's simply inaccurate. And that's what I can demonstrate. We have a lot of literature in the nineteenth century regarding the temperance movement and the abolition movement, showing the involvement of religious women in a variety of reforms, all of which were concerned with justice for women, with women's equality, and with getting rid of the double standard of sexual morality that held women to higher standards of behavior than men. We have very little in the twentieth century that documents the involvement of religious women in second-wave feminism, but it started even earlier than that, in movements earlier in the century.

Can you give some examples?

The early examples would be the home mission movement and Protestant missions, and women's involvement in that. You really can see continuity going from the nineteenth-century notion of women's work for women that comes out of the foreign mission movement, into the Social Gospel, and then into the anti-lynching movement and the Progressive Era, into the peace, anti-racism and civil rights movements, which eventually give birth to second-wave feminism. And you really can trace a linear trajectory there, particularly in the South. Virtually all of the women who became involved with second-wave feminism in the South came out of church-based civil rights activities, and that parallels what happened with the abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century when women who were working for racial justice then applied the principle of equality that they learned there to themselves. That's a continuing theme throughout American history. Just as conflicts over race and racism are persistent themes in our history, women's response to those debates has a consistent element to it.

There is such a wide range of experiences represented here, and as you admit, it doesn't even represent the full range. When you had to write your foreword, what struck you from this material, and were there any surprises?

It was really important to me to represent broad diversity, both in the conference and in the volume. Of course, just because of the limits of time and space, I couldn't have the degree of diversity that I would've liked. There were some groups that were not represented. But I did want to show the presence of feminism in unexpected places, so I didn't want to have just the usual suspects, and that was why it was very important for me to have evangelical, Pentecostal, Mormon, and Muslim women participate. And it was quite interesting that those groups seemed to feel a great kinship to each other, particularly the evangelical and the Muslim women, who felt the urgency of taking scripture seriously, of being able to speak to women for whom the scripture is really valued and central about women's issues. That was really fascinating to me, to see the evangelical and the Muslim women concurring that the scriptures must be treated respectfully if women's cause is to be advanced, because that has not typically been the stand of feminists within the academy. I don't want to represent all scholars as a group, but certainly one sees the notion in academia that women's full humanity supercedes any particular scriptural text, and so the scripture must always been interpreted in that light, with the assumption of women being created in the image of God and being fully human in that way.

With the Mormon women, I had a real quandary on whom to include. The speaker that I ended up choosing and who is represented in the volume, Margaret Toscano, writes this astounding story. There was not a dry eye in the house by the end of her story; it was unbelievably powerful. She has been excommunicated, as have many Mormon feminists, though not all. But I really had to think very carefully about the meaning of having as the only representative of a religious group someone who had been excommunicated, because that is different from most of the groups that are represented in the book and it has a different meaning. Ideally, in the case of Mormons, I would've liked to have had both, that is, to have included a church member in good standing. There is a group of women within the church that includes many active feminists, although many of them are somewhat demoralized about the current atmosphere, but they are still working hard for change within their church. And that's an important story that needs to be told. The women who have been excommunicated have other, very important stories to tell.

So you can see how in the desire to represent a diversity of groups, I ended up having only part of some. There were very difficult choices. Every single group that was represented in the book felt that they were underrepresented, and they are! It's absolutely true. So what I really hope for is that each one of those groups will produce a volume like this that can show the diversity of experience within their own religious community.

Yet the excommunication story is important, because as you point out in your foreword, there is a whole continuum as to what success women have had within their denominations and religions in terms of these battles.

I think one of the most important things that is demonstrated by the excommunication of Mormon feminists is the extent to which churches, and the Latter-Day Saints are not the only ones by any means, but the extent to which churches have been willing to sacrifice some of their most loyal, active, creative, and energetic participants. They really have alienated significant portions of their populations. You particularly see this in the Catholic Church. And I guess the way that I understand that, is that when you look at the history, you see that it is not feminism that is alienating people from religion, it's sexism. That's why women are leaving the churches. It's not because they are influenced by an external political movement, it's because they fail to see their own experience of their full humanity represented in the liturgies, scriptural interpretations, theology and language of the worship services.

In fact, some of the stories in this volume reveal that for women, feminism and increased religious commitment come at the same time, that is, women's experience in their churches and religions leads them to feminism. However, it's nearly always represented as the opposite.

That's absolutely right, though I should say that there are exceptions. The Jewish women are one exception. Jewish women tend to have a much more fragmented experience of religion and feminism and for the most part you don't see them moving towards feminism out of their Jewish faith, while you really do see that for Christian and Muslim women.

Probably one of the strongest examples of the trend you identify of the intertwining of the emergence of feminist consciousness and the further development of religious consciousness would be among the Goddess feminists and others who have chosen to leave traditional religions and participate in new religious movements among which feminism is at the core.

What do you find among the Jewish women? It seems that there is a going away and a coming back for Jewish women.

That's the story that Letty Pogrebin tells, that she really left Judaism because she felt alienated as a woman, and then feminism really enabled her to return to the faith of her family and her childhood by insisting that women could be fully included. And I think that's an experience that many women have.

What about your own work? This was a huge undertaking, to make this conference happen and get the volume out afterwards. So what are you able to turn to now?

I'm currently thinking that I'm going to focus my next book exclusively on the National Organization for Women because that is the example that is usually offered to demonstrate the secularism of the women's movement. By focusing on religion within that organization, I hope I'll really be able to dispel that notion. And one of the things that really appeals to me about NOW as a book topic is that it includes women from a wide variety of religious experiences, and so it'll give me a manageable way to contrast the experiences of Jewish women with Catholic and Protestant and women in new religious movements, less so Muslim women although there is certainly starting to be much more of a presence and awareness of both Islam and Native American Religions within NOW.

Of course, for the brochure that you did for the conference, you had a photo of the founding members of NOW.

I used that photograph of the founders of NOW because it is such a graphic contrast to the stereotype of feminism and of NOW as being exclusively secular. Indeed, religious conservatives have even portrayed NOW as "an agent of secularism." So I thought that was really an evocative picture. It shows the first national meeting of NOW in 1966, and it shows a nun in full habit, Sister Joellen Mead, standing next to an African American Methodist laywoman who worked at the National Council of Churches, standing next to Betty Friedan. Where is secular feminism? It's not there at the beginning of NOW! Religion certainly is an issue of debate within NOW, consistently. And so I see NOW more as a kind of cultural arena that allows us to look at the very complicated relationship between religion and feminism, rather than as an "agent of secularism."

Most of these stories do reveal that there is a complicated relationship between religion and feminism. From these accounts and your own research, what are some of the tough points between the two and how do women respond when they hit those tough spots?

It's definitely complicated and difficult, and I really admire the women who've made the decision that they're not going to walk away from religion, no matter how painful. These women are some of the most creative religious thinkers that there are. It would be much easier to walk away. They are people of true and authentic faith, and reasoned and deep faith because, again, they've had to get past their realization that religion, while it can be a source of liberation, can also be a source of oppression to women.

Now, what are the complexities? There are so many. Starting with the issue of language. Early on, language was one of the most contentious issues. Does the generic male include women when it's used in liturgy and scripture? The issue of scriptural translation was really important in the early years of religious feminism. Language was just a core issue. Now we have a lot more scholarship on that but we're still seeing new discoveries and new scholarship on it, and it is still contentious ground in many religions and denominations.

The whole question of the sex of God was also important. Is it an idolatrous form of anthropomorphism to ascribe gender to God? Is that the meaning of the masculine pronoun with regard to God, and are there other ways to understand that? That has been a much more difficult issue than inclusive language with regard to human beings, although in some sectors that's very controversial, as well.

Harvard Divinity School is a great example of these difficulties. We did not admit women to the school until 1955, which of course is relatively recently. Harvard Divinity School had been around a long time before we admitted women to theological study, and when women were admitted, they were not included in the curriculum really for another maybe 20 years after that, not until the 1970s. There are some wonderful stories in this book about events that occurred both at Harvard and at Yale and at other divinity schools, when some of the pioneer women theologians realized that there wasn't a single woman on the reading list, and tried to do something about it. They tell stories about the ways those suggestions were welcomed, not always with a great deal of receptivity. But those women persevered and really transformed the notion of what constitutes theological education. They're still doing that, and they're still arguing about it.

There was a lot of contention at the conference about who should be included and what should be included, what were and are legitimate feminist perspectives in religion. So it's not as if all of these issues have been sorted out.

Is another contended area the issue of leadership of women and ordination of women (which comes up a lot in these stories)?

Yes. One thing that you see is that after Vatican II in the 1960s, Roman Catholic women really expected that women's ordination was the inevitable outcome of Vatican II and of the direction society was going. But they were wrong.

I do remember hearing some disillusionment at the conference, and talk of a need to regroup. How do you interpret that?

There certainly is evidence of backlash. I think it's been most visible in the Southern Baptist Convention, which of course is the largest denomination in the country, but it's evident in other denominations as well. In meetings, even since the book has come out, there is a lot of debate around these issues. I think that tells you how deep these issues are, and that they don't go away. And to me, it's really a reflection of how deeply religion and gender are intertwined. They're absolutely fundamental to human perceptions of self and society. They're fundamental to our ways of categorizing reality. We can't function without sources of meaning, and without ways of understanding what it means to be a human being, and gender is right at the foundation of that. You realize this when you have a baby. Nobody can speak to a child without knowing if it's a girl or a boy. That's usually the first question. People can't relate to a gender-neutral human being, they can't even speak to a gender-neutral human being. These are both really fundamental to how we locate ourselves in the world, and to how we interpret and manage our experience, and how we value it.

I know you had an express purpose in this conference in making sure young women interacted with older women. Did you see connections across the generations, and/or tension?

That was a fascinating aspect of the conference, which doesn't come out so much in the volume because it isn't interactive, but there was really quite a bit of intergenerational tension. It was fascinating. The older generation expressed feelings that the younger generation didn't respect them and know about them; I guess that's inevitable, that's just always going to be there. But the younger generation conveyed feelings that they were not understood, or welcomed, and that their experiences couldn't be fully explained by some of the ideas that were being put forward by the older generation.

The conference tried to bridge the generations by having a large percentage of student participants. The book has a different approach, in that it's trying both preserve the stories of the older generation of feminists, but also to make their stories accessible. I believe that their personal stories do not become dated in the same way that some of their theoretical writing may, making them easier for a new generation to relate to. Anybody who reaches a certain age is impressed by the ignorance of the past that is part and parcel of American culture. High schools don't emphasize history; this was really an important part of my motive, to make sure that these stories would be preserved and told in a way that was accessible, so that they could be a resource to a new generation.

There are two aspects to the experience of younger women that motivated this project. One is that for those in religious contexts that have been very much influenced by the women's movement, they assume that's the way it always was and they don't know that it was a struggle to get things to that point, and they don't know that these are changes that could be undone, and have been undone in some venues. That was one set of concerns. The other is that they're reinventing the wheel. This was brought up very graphically by Gerda Lerner, the historian of women who spoke at the conference, and who has written about religion and the rise of feminist consciousness going back to the Renaissance, but particularly focusing in the nineteenth century. She observed, and any historian could observe this, that many religious women today are fighting the same battles over particular biblical texts and church teachings that religious women have been fighting for over 100 years and in some cases 200 years. That's very sobering to think that our nineteenth-century forebears resolved these issues in their own minds, but because we are not apprised of their stories and those resolutions, we have to reinvent them. We see this across the spectrum in religion and that's why I believe that the writing and teaching of history is so important.

Any final thoughts?

One of the things that really struck me at the conference was the importance of gay and lesbian women in religious feminism. There are a lot of ways to think about that. I'll just throw out a few of them. One is that the people who are most disenfranchised by any system have the most critical perspective on it and can see its failings the most clearly, and certainly religious lesbians have been in that category. Another is that, for many of them, they tended to be less focused on family and more on a peer group and institutions, so they often had important leadership roles in the churches that might have been very difficult, particularly in the 1960s and some of the earlier parts of this period, for women with families. So that's another issue that I identified, but it's something I need to think about further and explore.

There were questions perhaps later in the conference about how you balance family and an activist career. And a number of the speakers spoke to that, concerns about their children and their families in motivating their activism. Clearly, those are issues that are never going to go away.